Is the federal government setting the right example in data center energy efficiency?

EMC's sustainability guru questions the federal government's data center sprawl, saying it sets a bad energy-efficiency example.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Yesterday, I received a smattering of press materials about the various technology industry witnesses testifying in Washington about energy efficiency and the information and communication technology (ICT) industry. One of the persons presenting testimony was Kathrin Winkler, chief sustainability officer for EMC. (Winkler is also on the board of the Green Grid, for perspective.)

I was reading through the highlights of her testimony when I came across some elements of her testimony that I found rather intriguing:

First, Winkler testified that data centers can eat up as much as 100 times that energy per square foot as a typical office building. This is probably something that you know already, but I found it relevant to mention in relation to another one of her statement. That is, her identification of smaller data centers as one big culprit of data center inefficiencies.

Here's what she says in her testimony:

"There is still a significant population of stranded and underutilized ICT assets, particularly in smaller data centers that don't have the expertise or capital to invest in improvements."

I never really thought about this before. In fact, I always assumed the bigger the data center, the bigger the potential for inefficiency from a sheer scale point of view.

Winkler actually points to the federal government as an example of what NOT to do, citing its electricity costs for servers and data centers: In 2006, the bill was $450 million, and it apparently is doubling every five years. That means the cost of the electricity for the federal government's data centers could, in theory, be $900 million next year. Here's some more from her testimony.

A 1998 survey of federal agencies identified 432 agency data centers. In September 2009, agencies reported that the number of federal data centers had grown to 1,100. This trend runs counter to the well-established best practice of consolidating to fewer data centers to reduce costs, energy consumption and environmental impacts, while improving service and performance."

The point Winkler is making is this: the more data centers that are created ad hoc and that aren't managed to their full utilization, the worse it is for our electricity bill and for our nation's energy efficiency.

So, actually, maybe it's not the size of the data center, but how well it is utilized, which is the point of virtualization technology. In fact, one of the "recommendations" of Winkler's testimony was to demand (yes, she uses that verb) that the federal government start setting a better example by using virtualization to consolidate its data center mess.

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